Perfect plans and sloppy transitions: Tactical analysis of Milan’s win against Fiorentina

By Oliver Fisher -

AC Milan ensured that they ended a memorable 2022 in the best possible way with a 2-1 victory against Fiorentina, but the scoreline only tells part of the story after a contest full of drama.

It took Milan less than two minutes to take the lead as Rafael Leao continued his impressive record against Fiorentina, finishing with composure after latching on to a lay-off from Olivier Giroud, but Antonin Barak’s deflected shot ensured it was 1-1 at the break.

Just when all seemed lost, the Rossoneri stole all three points in fortunate circumstances as substitute Aster Vranckx’s cross was diverted into his own net by Nikola Milenkovic as Fiorentina players surrounded the referee asking for a foul.

Below is a tactical analysis of the game…

Planned to perfection

If an endorsement was ever needed regarding the importance of reviewing film to research opponents before games, it came after just 90 seconds as Milan perfectly executed a clear plan.

In the scene below, Tomori is carrying the ball out from the back as Milan’s shape in build-up is an obvious 3-2 with Tonali dropping between the centre-backs while Bennacer and Krunic play ahead of the three. The full-backs Theo and Kalulu are circled in red, demonstrating how they are playing level with the forward line to draw just enough attention, while Bennacer and Brahim (blue) are in the half-spaces.

What Pioli and his staff must have noticed is Vincenzo Italiano’s instruction to his players to man mark the forward players – in this case Leao and Giroud – meaning that Dodo and Milenkovic will follow their men wherever they go.

As Tomori strolls out in possession both Leao and Giroud drop deeper, knowing they would be followed.

What that means is that when the ball is played in to the feet of Giroud by Tomori, a big space has opened up behind the centre-backs with the wider defenders still tracking Milan’s advanced full-backs.

With Giroud and Leao playing close to one another, this allowed the Frenchman to take advantage of something we have seen plenty of this season, providing a flick into the path of the onrushing Leao (albeit with a helping hand from Milenkovic’s deflection) who then surged through on goal to score and perfectly execute the plan of breaching the high line they created with their movement.

Caught in a trap

Defensively, this was yet another worrying performance from Milan who lacked any real organisation, especially in transitional situations. By taking the lead early it allows you to pick your moments better and choose battles wisely, in theory meaning you should never be caught over-committing, but Pioli’s men were very sloppy after going a goal up.

This particular situation below shows that Tomori has been caught out stepping out of the back four to try and pressure the ball carrier. That allows Barak to breach the line and drive forward, with Cabral’s direct run attracting the attention of both Kalulu and Thiaw with two options to Barak’s left.

The problem with Tomori being taken out of the play entirely is that Kalulu is forced to come inside to help Thiaw, and Fiorentina exploit this perfectly with an overload on their left wing, targeting the space denoted in green. Biraghi – who got forward all game – would thankfully hit the post.

Unteachable instinct

This chance to make it 2-1 after Fiorentina’s scrappy equaliser was started by Brahim Diaz demonstrating what he does best, which we felt the need to highlight given that he had a quiet game overall and has attracted subsequent criticism.

The Spaniard doesn’t have the physicality to assert himself so instead must use his low centre of gravity, close control and speed of turn to break lines when he is being man-marked or shadow played.

In the chance below he shakes off Mandragora and Biraghi – sensing that his team-mate has been beaten – immediately runs to try and prevent Brahim from surging towards goal.

Kalulu knows what might come and his run (shown above in green) gives Brahim an option to offload the ball to the right. We mentioned for the first goal how Leao and Giroud playing close together could cause problems, and their movement wreaks havoc here too.

As the Frenchman and the Portuguese sprint towards the box with Kalulu keeping up with them stride for stride, Igor and Milenkovic are forced to watch their men to avoid an easy square for a tap-in.

While Leao drops off from his run and hangs around the edge of the penalty box, Giroud runs across his man into the space that he knows will open up at the near post because his strike partner has dropped off.

The end result was very close to being a goal as Giroud’s first-time flick was saved at the near post by Terracciano, at the second attempt.

The right stuff

Pioli made the rather bold decision to bring on Dest and Vranckx in the second half to try and inject some energy into the game, and it proved to be the right call as both demonstrated some dynamism that had been missing.

Starting with Dest, the Barcelona loanee came on at right-back and was admittedly shaky defensively but he was not brought on to keep goals out so much as he was to try have a hand in creating one at the other end.

What seems to be a big strength of the USA international is his darting runs inside thanks to his acceleration and his control. There is some way to go before this comparison holds weight, but it is similar to how Theo’s inward runs from the left side cause havoc by dragging men all over to create space elswhere.

Vranckx ultimately ended up drifting out to the right to support Dest, and it is from that position that he loaded a cross into the box which was misjudged by Terracciano and kneed into his own net by Milenkovic.

Admittedly though we saw more from his game, such as his close control, ability to find space and also some encouraging athleticism. The World Cup break can only help the Belgium U21 international get up to speed fully.

The data

We thank the excellent MarkStatsBot for the main data from the game, starting with the xG which was 1.95-0.83 in Milan’s favour, while the xThreat was 1.02-1.38 in Fiorentina’s favour. This shows that the Rossoneri probably had more quality chances, but La Viola also generated a fair volume of them.

The field Tilt was 35.2% to 64.8% in Fiorentina’s favour, which might not come as a surprise if you watched the match as the away side were dominant after Milan took the lead. The Defensive Line Height being 39.5 metres for Milan and 46.0 for Fiorentina shows how much Pioli’s men retreated while under pressure.

One thing that was more encouraging was the PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action) as Milan limited Fiorentina to 9.2. This number measures how many passes an opponent makes before Milan make a defensive action (tackle, interception etc.), so the lower the PPDA the better.

Milan’s PPDA was as high as 11.1 against Monza earlier this season, but 9.2 is much closer to last season’s PPDA average of 8.86, and that signifies a more effective and intense press.

The passing network below gives some interesting information regarding the starting XI. Many expected a three-man defence of Tomori, Thiaw and Kalulu but in actual fact it seems Pioli sprang a surprise by telling Kalulu to push up further as a wing-back, with Theo deeper and Krunic playing over towards the left. In practice, it almost resembles a 3-4-3 with Tonali-Bennacer in the middle and Leao-Giroud-Brahim as the trio up front.


Finally, the territories of control. Again this lends to the idea that Kalulu was operating as a wing-back – patrolling the entire right flank allowing Brahim to function more as an inside forward, while on the other flank Theo was deeper and had Krunic to help him cover the threat of Ikone, Barak and even Amrabat.

In recent weeks Bennacer has been playing in front of the defence moreso than Tonali but the roles were flipped this time as the latter dropped between the centre-backs in build-up play and the former was tasked with finding half-spaces, driving play forward and distributing.



We’ll leave the last word of 2022 to one of Milan’s most influential players in a year that brought great success in Tonali, as he perfectly summarised the ‘just get over the line somehow’ display against Fiorentina.

“There aren’t many ways to play a game, the goal is to win, playing well or playing badly. The fans don’t care much about playing well or playing badly, it matters to win. Today we gave our all, even if we didn’t manage many things from a technical point of view, but we have great character,” he said.

Milan must use the break to recharge their batteries, brush off fatigue and get back to implementing the game principles that have made the team so exciting to watch, because the last few games have been laboured and unimaginative, relying on flashes of brilliance more than a cohesive unit.

Tags AC Milan Milan-Fiorentina
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